Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: It’s no surprise to see a referee finally snap

The only surprise is that it has taken so long for an incident like this to happen.

Referee Darren Drysdale.
Referee Darren Drysdale.

A referee confronting a player? About time, some would say.

The footage of referee Darren Drysdale squaring up to Ipswich Town midfielder Alan Judge this week caused a considerable furore and led to the official’s removal from his posting at Southend United’s fixture against Bolton Wanderers today.

While footballers and managers harangue and verbally abuse officials every week, the men overseeing matches are expected to keep their cool.

Up to now, they have done.

When Drysdale declined to award Ipswich a penalty on Tuesday night, after Judge tumbled in the box under a challenge from a Northampton Town defender, the player went to remonstrate with the referee.

At the end of a long night, where his decision-making had been questioned throughout, Drysdale’s patience snapped.

Was it anything in particular? Maybe.

Or perhaps it was an accumulation of the aggravation referees are subjected to.

It might even have been exacerbated by the environment Drysdale is being asked to work in.

These officials’ ability to perform to their best levels has been affected by this pandemic, too.

They no longer meet up in hotels before matches and travel together to stadiums.

It is a lonely job at the best of times, but that isolation has been magnified considerably.

Many officiating jobs involve making long car journeys alone, before a ball has been kicked.

Once the game starts, they are subjected to a relentless barrage of commentary as each decision receives approval or disdain depending on which way it has gone.

In normal times, the crowd drowns out the players’ and coaches’ voices but now every disparaging comment can be heard echoing around the empty arenas.

When behind-closed-doors football started, there was a school of thought that suggested officials would benefit from the lack of pressure from partisan crowds.

That has not been the case. Instead, there is nothing to drown out the incessant whingeing from the dugouts and those on the pitch.

Occasionally there has been humour to witness, such as when a linesman flagged Fleetwood’s Ched Evans offside at Peterborough when he was clearly a couple of yards on.

Watching on from high up on the gantry it was possible to hear the tirade of invective spewed forth towards the flag-bearer, culminating with Evans’s comically empty threat: “It’s decisions like this that make me want to retire.”

We in the media are guilty, too, of course. How often do we name check an official for getting a decision wrong in comparison to when they get one right?

Consciously or subconsciously, officials are dehumanised in the process of assessing their performance. VAR has just added fuel to the fire, providing an extra platform for officials to make mistakes on.

With more live games on television, referees’ performances are under the microscope like never before.

Some unquestionably enjoy the profile that comes with the job, but the recent death threats to Mike Dean highlighted the vulnerability of the most cocksure officials, those like Dean who revel in the limelight and enjoy being centre of attention.

Drysdale is not one of English football’s big names. He is no celebrity ref.

But he has been officiating for more than 16 years without any undue cause for concern about his temperament.

Tuesday’s match was clearly a bad night.

“I fully understand that it is important for us as referees to maintain our composure throughout the game and always engage with players in a professional manner” said Drysdale, in a statement on Wednesday. “I’m sorry that I did not do that last night and I can only apologise to Alan and Ipswich Town.”

There were contrasting reactions from Judge and his manager, Paul Lambert, to that apology.

Lambert went on the front foot during a Sky Sports interview later that day.

“I think the apology is very soft – it’s easy to say sorry after the event,” he said. “What happened was incredible, I’ve never seen that, for a referee to go head-to-head with a player.

“He had to get pulled away by the Northampton players and at that time he’s out of control.

“What would have happened to Alan Judge if he’d done that to the referee? He’d have been looking at a six-month ban, a one-year ban and a massive fine.”

Judge, however, was the more circumspect and deserves a lot of credit for diffusing the matter.

“There was no need for an apology,” he said, via Twitter. “I wasn’t looking for one or looking for any action to be taken.

“In football, as everybody knows, stuff happens in the heat of the moment in a game. We all make mistakes and for me that is the end of this.”

The FA have charged Drysdale over the matter. It would be no bad thing to have Judge’s words at the forefront of their minds when a punishment is handed down.

Mistakes under pressure are what make us human.

And few in football are under as much pressure as the men in the middle.

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